Diane Gensler
Hadassah Educators Council

Fighting Antisemitism in America’s Public School Systems: A Losing Battle Part 5

Image courtesy of the author who created the cartoon from images on on, and
Image courtesy of the author who created the cartoon from images on on, and

This is Part Five of a multi-part series on fighting antisemitism in America’s public school systems.

I’ve always been pleased that my kids’ Maryland public high school has a chapter of the Jewish Student Union (JSU). It’s especially important at this time, given all the controversy and emotions around the Hamas-Israel War. I figured that the JSUwould give my  children a safe place to hang out with their Jewish friends, and, perhaps even to talk and collaborate with other groups of children at the school, including members of the Muslim Student Association (MSA). One might call me delusional.

When my children attend a JSU meeting, what seems to get their attention is that there is food. “Do they do special things for a holiday?” I questioned. “What do you discuss at the meetings? Have you discussed the war?”

“We made dreidels for Hanukkah,“ one son told me.
Great, I thought. At least they did something.
“Did you talk about the Hamas-Israel War?” I asked again.
Only when it happened. They try not to be political,was the answer I received.
They try not to be political?

These kids are afraid to speak up in favor of Israel. They claim that they can be members of the JSU without discussing Israel or expressing any Zionist feelings. On the other hand, it seems to me that the MSA is so loud in its anti-Israel chants that our own kids want to run and hide.

I know I’m not the only parent who is unhappy about this. One parent, a former soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, believes that being in the JSU means that you are a Zionist and you should act like one. But I don’t know how much we can ask of our fearful teenagers.

A recent conversation I had with my sons about the JSU went like this:
“What does the supervising teacher have to say?” I asked.
“She doesn’t do anything,” my sons replied.
“What do you mean she doesn’t do anything?” I countered.
“She is in the room when we meet, but she doesn’t participate. She isn’t even Jewish” was the reply.
“How can that be?” I asked.

One son responded, “A long time ago, someone wanted to start a chapter of the JSU, so the school administrators said okay. The teacher is just there.”

“So she’s just there to supervise?” I asked.
“I guess” was the response.

I was one of two parent representatives from our school who attended a JSU parent meeting with a local rabbi from the National Council of Synagogue Youth.  (Ours was the only public school represented, since the other parents’ children attend area private schools.)

The rabbi and his team have been visiting schools for years, talking to kids of all denominations about any subject. I heard that they were instrumental in supporting a Jewish student at one private school who was facing harassment from a non-Jewish, anti-Zionist student.

So I had asked one of my sons to speak with the JSU supervising teacher to ask if we could arrange a visit with this rabbi for the JSU students. I never got a response from the teacher, so I emailed her, but, again, there was no response. Finally, I sent in a hand-written note with my son. A few days later, she emailed me, apologizing for the delay, as she had been sick:

Good afternoon, Ms. Gensler
I want to thank you for the contact information for Rabbi (Name). After several conversations with Ms. (Name), the principal, and the president and vice president of the JSU, we have decided to not bring in any outside speakers or presenters that are not initiated by JSU unanimously. This would mean that the entire JSU community would need to discuss and come to a consensus of what they want presented. It is important that we allow the students to be the ones that guide what goes on in the club as it is their club. I do appreciate your assistance and thoughts concerning the group. I will address it with the president and vice president to see what their thoughts are and if it’s something that perhaps they’d like to consider — but it is ultimately their call.

[Name of Teacher}

An invitation for a rabbi to come speak to the JSU must be a unanimous decision by the members? Can you ever get a consensus among a group of teenagers, especially ones who are afraid to reveal their Jewish identity? Where is the educational guidance?

I wondered whether, when other clubs invite guests, the students unanimously support the visit. How does the MSA operate? Does it have a non-Muslim supervising teacher, as the JSU has a non-Jewish one? Do they need to vote unanimously before they invite someone? Does each club’s students have all the control?

I searched the national JSU website only to find that our school is not even listed as belonging to the organization. I emailed the supervising teacher again. She responded that she hadn’t known there was a national organization.

What are Jewish parents to do in these circumstances? It seems as though the cards are stacked against us.

Author’s Note: This is the fifth blog post in my multi-part series exploring rising antisemitism in the Maryland public school system. According to CBS News, since 2022, there has been a 98 percent rise in antisemitic incidents in Maryland, one of 31 states without Holocaust Education legislation. Currently, there are Holocaust Education bills languishing in both Maryland’s House and Senate. Hadassah has been leading a national fight against antisemitism and Hadassah Advocacy can connect you to your local, regional and/or national representatives so that you can enlist their support for this important legislation. Please check out “The ABC’s of Holocaust Education” in the most recent issue of Hadassah Magazine.

About the Author
Diane Gensler is a Life Member of Hadassah Baltimore, a member of the Hadassah Educators Council and the Hadassah Writers' Circle, and a lay leader in her synagogue. She is the author of Forgive Us Our Trespasses: A Memoir of a Jewish Teacher in a Catholic School (Apprentice House Press, 2020) and occasionally writes articles for organizations of which she is a member, such as the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland. She is a certified English and special education teacher. In addition to teaching in public and private schools, she developed educational software, tutored online and wrote and managed online curriculum. She is a Maryland Writing Project Teacher Consultant and a mentor. A native Baltimorean and mother of three, she leads the Baltimore Jewish Writers Guild and holds volunteer positions in her children’s schools and activities.
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